Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Jensen Sentenced: Now Safe to Walk the Streets

Dane County Circuit Judge Steven Ebert will decide Jensen's fate today. Recent legislative inaction argues for a stiff sentence to inspire the Legislature to pass ethics reform. The light sentences handed out to date have apparently failed to put sufficient fear in lawmakers' hearts. But it's too late to make an example of Jensen.

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editorial, May 15, 2006

I have a general philosophy that people that are outraged by everything generally aren't truly outraged by anything. But when looking at the quote above, I couldn't believe a paper with any integrity would offer such an opinion.

The Journal Sentinel editorial board is upset that the Wisconsin Assembly failed to pass Senate Bill 1, which they constantly refer to the "ethics bill." They believe that the bill some how will keep special interests from influencing legislative action. However, they apparently have no problem with judges artificially inflating sentences to influence legislative action (known in some circles as blackmail), and in fact applaud the practice.

On Tuesday, Scott Jensen was sentenced to 15 months in prison and banned from the Capitol for five years, a sentence harsher than had been handed out to two Democratic legislators that accumulated a total of 38 felony counts, as opposed to Jensen's three felony counts. I'm not going to argue that Jensen was treated unfairly - other good blogs have covered that well. In fact, Jensen made a terrible mistake by taking his case to trial - a Republican politician in a corruption case has about as much chance with a Dane County judge as a burrito has with Prince Fielder.

Needless to say, when Jensen's tough sentence was announced, the Assembly didn't scurry back to pass the Journal Sentinel's pet bill.

Editorial boards and government "watchdogs" still somehow believe that the charges against legislators have some kind of connection with "ethics" bills that have been floating around the Capitol. Only an editorial board would look back at a six month period where three of the most powerful legislators in the state were sentenced to jail time and think that the system is somehow broken. In fact, the "system" worked exactly as it was supposed to. Complaints were filed, DAs investigated, and the cases were adjudicated. In fact, the one thing that may have sped the process up would have been the involvement of the Attorneys General during the process, Jim Doyle and Peg Lautenschlager. Instead, they both passed the hot potatoes to the locals to handle.

So what does this "magic bullet" bill (SB1) do? Well, not much. It eliminates the current ethics and elections board, and creates a Government Accountability Board, who then hires an independent investigator. This independent investigator isn't elected and reports only to the Board. Before the investigator begins their work, however, he or she must relay their findings to the DA in the county in which the violation was to have occurred. If the DA takes a pass, it's open season for the investigator, who can impose fines on private or public citizens, issue subpoenas, obtain search warrants, and prosecute offenses. God help us all if a rabid nutjob like Mike McCabe from Wisconsin Democracy Campaign gets that job.

What will most likely happen is that the DAs will take these cases and they will work their way through the courts. Which is exactly what happens now. But if the DAs believe there are cases that have no merit, this renegade independent prosecutor will be able to circumvent the entire court process and begin fining and prosecuting people, all because they choose to be involved in the political process. This may be the only area in state law where there will be a position completely unaccountable to voters that will enforce even the most minor of violations.

Can you imagine the Journal Sentinel editorials if the state set up an unelected, unaccountable investigator to go after, say, gang members? Or illegal immigrants? Or terrorists? It would make their outrage over wiretapping seem tame by comparison. Somehow, though, circumventing the legal process for elected officials, who by the way have to answer to the voters every couple of years, is just fine.

The bill, you will notice, actually changes no laws with regard to actual campaign violations. Everything that is illegal now will still be illegal, and vice versa. So it is unclear how the bill would have changed anything with regard to the criminal cases that just wrapped up. I'm fairly sure Chuck Chvala knew extortion and money laundering was illegal, and allegedly chose to take part in these practices anyway. Without question, Scott Jensen thought what he was doing was legal, even though a judge thought otherwise. All the cases involved legislators ignoring current laws for which they could be prosecuted. Which would be the case if SB1 were to become law. The bill really does nothing but say "things that are against the law are now illegal."

Now I'm not a fool - obviously sentiment against politicians statewide is more negative than ever. Even Steven Avery is sitting in his cell saying "Thank God I'm not a state legislator." Steps to beef up the ethics and elections boards would be welcome. It is a fraud on the people of Wisconsin that the same two individuals who headed up those agencies during the time these crimes were committed are still in their posts. But the fact that people are blindly advocating "reforms" without knowing what those reforms actually do is troubling. Hey if it's reform, it must be good, right?

I am anxiously awaiting the Journal Sentinel editorial supporting an ethics bill that would lessen the influence of editorial boards. Or an editorial urging tough sentences on women who throw their newborns in trash cans, so maybe the legislature will finally get tough on infanticide. Until then, these "reform" efforts are nothing but posturing.